Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An Imaginary Story (The Last War in Albion Part 67: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, The Apocalypse)

Last War in Albion will now be running on Wednesdays, with TARDIS Eruditorum moved to Mondays and Fridays for the remainder of its run. 

This is the seventeenth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the fourth volume. It's available in the US here and UK here. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” opens with one of the more famous passages ever written by Moore, which proclaims that “this is an IMAGINARY STORY (Which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed,” it explains, and proceeds to tease much of the plot of the subsequent two issues, before concluding that the story “begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a bird, only a plane. Superman died ten years ago...

"This is an IMAGINARY Story... Aren't they all?" - Alan Moore, Whatever Happened to the man of Tomorrow

Figure 499: The first issue of John Byrne's
Superman reboot carried an ad for Alan
Moore's Swamp Thing run on its cover.
It is worth highlighting the degree to which this is, within the context of 1986 DC Comics, actually controversial. Certainly John Byrne, who was inheriting the Superman books after this, did not like it, complaining years later about how he cannot hear the phrase “imaginary story” “without a snide and ennui soaked voice whispering in my ear ‘but aren’t they all?’” Indeed, he suggests that Moore’s preface to the story “goes most deeply to the root” of “the many things that can be seen to have gone wrong with American superhero comics.” His reason for this remarkable claim is that “when we ask ‘Aren’t they all?’ we are looking behind the curtain. We are seeing that the Emperor has no clothes.” While Byrne’s concern about the prospect of readers looking behind the curtain at that particular moment is wholly understandable, given that what they’d see was Byrne taking the job of an acclaimed thirty year veteran of the industry who had just been unceremoniously fired, it stands in marked and, more to the point, ideologically grounded contrast with Alan Moore, who noted that when he first got into comics at the age of seven he “was probably preoccupied with the characters themselves. I wanted to know what Batman was doing this month. Around about the time when I reached the age of say twelve, perhaps a lot earlier, I became more interested in what the artists and writers were doing that month,” a viewpoint that marks, for Moore at least, an active and conscious interest in the exact artifice of comics that Byrne wants to sweep under the rug (at least when talking about comics aimed at people who are not fairly young children, which, it is fair to say, few comics in the age of the direct market were). 

Figure 500: Jimmy Olsen is killed by the
Brainiac-animated corpse of Lex Luthor.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Curt Swan
and Kurt Schaffenberger, from Action Comics
#583, 1986)
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is, as one might expect given Moore’s approach, very much invested in the narrative game that it is playing. It has two almost entirely contradictory jobs to do, and it does this by being actively concerned with the gap between them. On the one hand, it is self-consciously an epic tale of Superman’s last and final battle, where “his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights,” in which “all the things he had were taken from him save for one.” On the other, it’s a disposable “imaginary story” that everybody reading knows is just marking time before the big John Byrne reboot comes in next month, and that there is no actual finality to it. And so Moore makes the story about the very impossibility of it, starting the story with a journalist interviewing Lois Lane (now Elliot) about Superman’s now decade-old death. By foregrounding that fact at the start, Moore seems to fly in the face of the story’s lack of genuine finality. But because of the peculiar circumstances of the comic, serving as the last comic before a reboot that isn’t going to pick up where Moore’s story leaves off, but is rather going to declare that Moore’s story and every previous Superman story are no longer part of the Superman canon, Moore instead seems to be taking a sort of grim advantage of the situation. Since nothing he does is going to “count,” so to speak, Moore can do any terrible things he wants. And so the comic is in many ways an unrelentingly grim parade in which all of Superman’s great villains come back, deadlier than ever before, and wreck untold havoc. 

Figure 501: Lex Luthor kills Superman in the imaginary
story "The Death of Superman!" (Written by Jerry Siegel,
art by Curt Swan and George Klein, from Superman #149,
1961)
But, of course, given the existence of decades of imaginary stories, this isn’t actually a new sort of power. It’s not even the first time Superman died, with Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan having written an imaginary story doing that all the way back in 1961. As much as Moore may play at the idea that his story is different because the Byrne reboot is imminent, this is ultimately a trick on Moore’s part. The key fact is the nature of the story’s grim parade. As with much of Moore’s work in American superhero comics, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is based on playing with existing concepts. This was, after all, the point of requesting Curt Swan for art chores: to make the story look like the decades of Superman stories in which its characters were developed. Moore doesn’t just tell a grim and apocalyptic story, in other words: he tells a grim and apocalyptic story that is unmistakably a Superman story. Indeed, the story is almost gratuitously a Superman story, positively relishing in getting every single major Superman villain and supporting character into the plot somewhere. Even Superman notices this; the story’s climax comes when he realizes that there’s one villain who hasn’t appeared yet, and that this villain must therefore be responsible for everything that’s happened. 

Figure 502: Alan Moore tasked Curt Swan with drawing
a creature that his captions described as indescribable.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Curt Swan and Kurt
Schaffenberger, from Action Comics #583, 1986)
All of this exists to set up the real question Moore is examining with the story, which is what it means to try to craft an epic and apocalyptic narrative out of Superman in particular. And it is here that Moore pulls his great trick, ultimately opting to reject premise. The story’s main plot ends with Superman being forced to kill Mr. Mxyzptlk, the five-dimensional imp he realizes is behind all of this. (Mxyzptlk’s motive is one of the most charmingly pointless imaginable - after two thousand years of being a mischievous imp, he’s grown bored and decided to spend two millennia being evil instead.) Wracked with guilt, Superman proclaims that “nobody has the right to kill. Not Mxyzptlk, not you, not Superman… especially not Superman!” And so he opts to walk into the chamber of his Fortress of Solitude where he keeps the Gold Kryptonite, which will permanently strip him of his powers, and then, apparently to walk out into the frozen wastes to die. 

Figure 503: The last Superman story defers its ending.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Kurt Schaffenberger, from
Action Comics #583, 1986)
At this point the story returns to its frame narrative of the interview with Lois, who politely shows the journalist the door, leaving Lois, her husband Jordan, and their infant child Jonathan alone. They talk, with Jordan telling stories of work today. “Old Dan Hodge brought in some snapshots of his grandchildren,” he says, “and we’re working on this old ’48 Buick at the moment, trying to get her working. She’s beautiful.” Pressed by Lois on a criticism of Superman that he’d voiced earlier in the story, Jordan claims that “he was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn’t get along without him.” But as he claims this, the image focuses on Jonathan playing with the bucket of charcoal for the fire, picking up a chunk and holding it and finally, dropping a diamond back into the bucket. Lois, meanwhile, suggests that they might sit in “bed with a bottle of wine. And after that, I figure we just live happily ever after. Sound good to you?” And so the comic closes with Jordan standing at their door, closing it towards the reader, and winking at them, answering simply, “Lois, my love… what do you think?” In other words, far from being an apocalyptic story with a downbeat ending, the story is in fact about how Superman earned a retirement to where he got to do the things he really loves, which is to say, to be an ordinary man working in an auto shop. The story does not mark the end of Superman at all - clearly their son is going to grow up to be a superhero in his own right. The story both serves as the finale for an entire era of Superman comics and as a demonstration that this finale is completely and utterly unnecessary.

First and foremost, then, this story is a love letter on Moore’s part to Superman comics and, more broadly, to DC. But the context of the love letter is both revealing and important. However good Moore’s story is, it only exists because DC was at the time actively seeking to jettison all of the past stories Moore is drawing on in favor of a single, unified, and self-consistent account of Superman and, ideally, everything else within DC. Moore is, in other words, ostentatiously winning the battle when the larger war has already been won by Byrne and people who agree with his aesthetics. Moore’s full-throated celebration of Superman only gets to exist in an elegiac context, as the flexibility and playfulness with which Moore could craft his story was precisely what the Crisis-mandated reboot was designed to excise from the character, and indeed, what Crisis existed to try to excise from the company as a whole. Indeed, not two years later, Moore himself would break ties with DC. 

Figure 504: Many Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-ins connected only via
panels like this, in which the sky is red. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #46, 1985)
Moore’s other engagement with Crisis on Infinite Earths came, as mentioned, in the pages of Swamp Thing. This came about as a consequence of a change to the nature of the American comics industry that is worth remarking upon: the crossover. Since Crisis on Infinite Earths was designed to impact every comic being published by DC, it was assumed that everyone buying any DC comics would buy it. And to this end, virtually every comic DC published ran at least one issue that, at least superficially, tied into the larger story. (It is worth emphasizing the word “superficially” here - Crisis on Infinite Earths also led to fandom coining the term “red skies crossover” to describe several of the crossovers, which consisted of perfectly ordinary issues of their respective comics in which, in one panel, someone would remark on how the sky was red and ominous, perhaps as if some crisis were coming, before getting on with whatever they were doing.) For Swamp Thing, this was issue #46, entitled “Revelations.” The timeline of this crossover is, however, vexed, and more to the point, vexed in a way that highlights the logistical problems underlying Crisis on Infinite Earths. “Revelations” features a sequence in which Swamp Thing visits the Monitor’s satellite. This is the same context in which Swamp Thing appeared in Crisis on Infinite Earths #5, released in May of 1985, the same month as the second part of Moore’s underwater vampire story. But “Revelations” did not come out until December of 1985, actually making it out two full weeks after Crisis on Infinite Earths wrapped up. 

Figure 505: Alan Moore's take on the
apocalypse of Crisis on Infinite Earths
was altogether more psychological
and horrific than Crisis itself. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette
and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing
#46, 1985)
In many ways, however, Crisis on Infinite Earths is just a backdrop for “Revelations.” Moore has Swamp Thing travel around the world to see what it’s like in the face of the apocalypse, leading to a two-page spread in which he sees “horrors and marvels” that “could not be counted,” allowing Moore to offer descriptions like “a jackboxer from the Manhattan saltbogs of Soto had managed to bring down a young ichthyosaurus with his whorpoon, but the alligators were closing in fast,” and “a woman with a pulpy orange growth upon her shoulder stumble unwittingly into a field of water hyacinths. As they parted and she sank into the water beneath, the growth opened its mouth and began to bellow,” and “there was laughter and weeping and somebody was screaming for somebody else to hold their hand, please, please, just hold their hand…” None of these images have any corollary within Crisis in Infinite Earths - they don’t refer to specific scenes in the way that Swamp Thing’s appearance on the Monitor’s satellite do. Rather, they’re flavor: attempts to depict what it’s like to witness the end of the world.

But the tie-in to Crisis on Infinite Earths consumes only the first of five issues about the end of the world, and it would be a mistake to treat the apocalypse depicted as coextensive with Crisis. Rather, Moore’s story piggybacks upon that apocalypse, casting his apocalypse as an echo of the larger one. As Constantine explains within the narrative, “this sort of physical destruction is bound to cause temporary disturbances on the psychic plane. Our problem is that there are people who anticipated the disturbance and plan to take advantage of it.” For Swamp Thing’s part, he experiences it as “the whimpering that people made deep in their souls. He heard the bedlam of a mass mind faced with extinction.” Within Moore’s later cosmology this would seem to suggest an apocalypse within Ideaspace, although it’s important to note that the conflict is presented as taking place in the DC Universe’s Ideaspace, which is at best a tiny subset of Ideaspace proper.

Much of Moore’s work on Swamp Thing has engaged with this precise point. Moore explicitly sought to use Swamp Thing to engage with “the reality of American horror.” In his view, “what frightens people these days is not the idea of a werewolf jumping out at them, it’s the idea of a nuclear war.” In truth, Moore’s engagement with the apocalypse went beyond mere nuclear war (which he never touched on directly in Swamp Thing, although it was a substantial theme elsewhere in Moore’s DC work), and to the larger idea of the human capacity to destroy their own habitation in a number of ways, an image that ties in with the larger ecological themes of Swamp Thing

Figure 506: The Brujeriá's awful ritual.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #48, 1986)
So Moore’s apocalypse is framed, ultimately, as a conceptual apocalypse - as a nightmarish consequence of the very idea of the apocalypse and of the way in which the horrors Moore has been engaging with throughout his run on Swamp Thing loom over the culture. But this conceptual apocalypse is still grounded in specific ideas. The Brujería, the South American cult that Moore has unleashing this apocalypse, is described as having “existed for centuries in the forests of Patagonia, at the southernmost tip of South America.” They are, in other words, positioned at the root of the Americas as a whole. The “darkness at the heart of this continent” that Moore spent the entire “American Gothic” arc presenting, in other words, finds its most fundamental expression here - a dark and twisted cult lying at the deepest base of the entire land. (That this fits into the same tradition of demonizing and exoticizing indigenous American populations that Moore perpetuated in “The Curse” is, of course, a deeply frustrating failure on Moore’s part.) It is in this regard worth noting that the Brujería’s scheme is in many ways an echo of Moore’s own plotting. “Using their influence,” Constantine explains, “they’ve forced the dark stuff to the surface, all over the world. I only showed you the trouble spots I thought you could learn from.” These trouble spots, of course, constitute the “American Gothic” arc, a point hammered home by Bissette and Totleben’s art, which recaps these threats. “Each incident,” Constantine continues, “has increased the general belief in the paranormal by degrees, until the whole psychic atmosphere is like a balloon ripe for bursting.” In other words, the Brujería have created a bunch of typical horror stories in order to create an atmosphere of tension. This tacitly allies the Brujería with Moore, who, as a writer, has been enacting this exact plan: a series of traditional horror stories serving as a prelude to an eventual apocalypse.

Figure 507: The bird flies, the pearl in its mouth. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by John Totleben, from Swamp Thing
#48, 1986)
The unleashing of this horror, in “A Murder of Crows,” in Swamp Thing #48, comes when one of Constantine’s allies, Judith, betrays him to the Brujería and agrees to serve as their messenger. This involves a ritual in which Judith vomits out her intestines and allows her body to shrivel until only her severed but still talking head remains. The Brujería then place a black pearl in her mouth, at which point her head steadily transforms into a bird, a process that is laboriously and disturbingly described, at which point the bird is released to summon the nameless dark power by delivering a pearl held in its mouth to a distant destination. [continued]

Monday, October 20, 2014

You're Fast Becoming Prey to Every Cliché-Ridden Convention in the American West (A Town Called Mercy)

The problem of Susan.
It’s September 15th, 2012. Ne-Yo is at number one with “Let Me Love You,” with Pink, Public Enemy, and Fun also charting. In news, an attack on the American embassy in Libya results in the death of the US Ambassador, among others. Andy Murray wins the US Open. Also, I turn thirty. How ghastly. 

While on television, A Town Called Mercy. It is easy to find fault with this story. This does not, however, make it any less worth doing. First and most simply is, of course, Susan, the trans mare. This marks the second time Toby Whithouse has completely fucked up trans representation (the first being his gobsmackingly transphobic bit of dialogue for Jack in Greeks Bearing Gifts over on Torchwood). One can certainly argue that Susan was not actually trans, and indeed, I am forced to do so, but let’s be clear that I am doing so only because the alternative is to have the Doctor misgendering someone, and no. One might argue that the intent was good, although I think you run aground pretty quickly when you realize that thus far all trans representation on Doctor Who has been for the purpose of jokes, which is actually pretty much the opposite of good intentions no matter how much you state it. It’s past fucking time we have a trans character on Doctor Who, played sincerely and sympathetically. Ugh.

Moving on, then, we get to more substantive issues. When looking at the allocation of episodes in this mini-season, the Moffat bookends seemed likely to be good, the Chibnall episodes seemed solidly unpromising, and then you had Toby Whithouse in the middle. Whithouse is an interesting writer - his three previous stories were good. His Torchwood script was at least well-crafted, which is one of the nicest sentences you can write that begin with the words “his Torchwood script.” Being Human is fabulous. He’s probably one of the more interesting possibilities for next showrunner, in that he’s got the basic ability to write in a bunch of different tones and to change things up within an episode. He can do scary, tragic, and funny in the same forty-five minutes, he’s got experience on big dramas. I’m really interested to see The Game when it drops, which, curiously, seems like it will be in the US before the UK. And so this looked quite promising.

But with A Town Called Mercy we see one of his basic virtues as a Doctor Who writer turn unexpectedly to vice. One of the things Whithouse has always been very good at is what we might call high-theme writing - the sort of thing that, in Doctor Who, came out of Paul Cornell’s early 90s embrace of Neil Gaiman’s “tell don’t show” approach, where you make sure whatever big statement about Doctor Who you want to make is actually delivered, as dialogue, within the text. This has been characteristic of the new series, and is actively reinforced with the famed “tone meetings” in which all the different departments are put on the same page about what the story is doing and then turned loose to contribute actively to the storytelling. Doctor Who’s embrace of a pop music structure, with each episode excitedly shouting “here’s what we’re doing this week!” is perfect for high-theme approaches. And Whithouse is very, very good at this. His episodes know what they’re about, and say so.

With The God Complex, this was already starting to feel slightly out of step with what the program was doing, but that was covered for by Nick Hurran’s superlative direction. But by this point in the program we’ve very much moved past that. It’s in a large sense what the “the Doctor has deleted himself from every database in the universe” plot point is about. It’s not that the Doctor has gotten too big, but rather that the degree to which he is a known quantity diminishes him. The idea that you can look the Doctor up and get an explanation or, as Dinosaurs on a Spaceship proposed and rejected, a price suggests that the Doctor is a singular and known quantity. But starting with Season Seven, and kicking into overdrive thereafter, the series begins to move away from that. 

Instead it starts… well, the default term is something like “making the Doctor mysterious again,” but we should stress that this is not in some Cartmel Masterplan “far more than just another Time Lord” sense. Rather, it’s about narrative grammar. One of the truisms of Season Seven is that the storytelling speeds up a lot, but a fair part of this effect is generated not by actually going any faster, but by starting and stopping the story in slightly unusual places, or by limiting or eliminating sequences in which the Doctor’s emotional reaction to things drives the plot. It’s not about keeping the Doctor out of the story for large swaths of things, but rather about not letting the emotional beats of the story parallel the Doctor’s emotional arc. This feels accelerated simply because the distance it puts between the viewer and the Doctor makes it feel like there are gaps in the story - like things are being skipped. 

Which means that Whithouse’s story, in hindsight, comes at precisely the wrong moment - a story that’s loudly and emphatically done in the very style Doctor Who is abandoning. On top of that, there’s a worrisome sense that Whithouse only has one angle he knows how to take on the Doctor, which is the post-Time War angst Doctor. Which is fine, but again, something that’s by this point receding into the past for Doctor Who. Indeed, if you want to be vicious, you can read Day of the Doctor as Moffat going “oh for god’s sake, let’s just never have a story like A Town Called Mercy again.” So here the concept is that the Doctor is paralleled with Josef Mengele, only effective. But the well of “the Doctor has done things as terrible as any villain” has long since started to run dry, and the fact that Kahler-Jex is such an absolute cipher doesn’t help. The script tries to paper it over with the line about how “it would be so much simpler if I was just one thing,” and this is a perfectly fair point when made at human beings, but equally, there’s a perfectly reasonable response to be made, which is that, yes, it would be, because it would mean you could actually have been coherently and effectively characterized in the course of a forty-five minute story instead of just bouncing back and forth between two extremes.

Is Whithouse capable of more? He may well be, and I certainly would be interested in seeing him back. Frankly, he’s at a point in his career where an evolution in style is due. Once again, I admit my intense curiosity for The Game. But for this story, he’s in a rut, such that when we get to the big loud theme-as-text moment, the Doctor’s throwing Kahler-Jex over the town line to be killed and talking about his mercy, it’s as clanging and hollow as a bell. This isn’t helped by being the moment where Karen Gillan most obviously goes on complete autopilot. That Arthur Darvill is relatively disinterested throughout this episode is largely understandable, given that the script gives him essentially nothing whatsoever to do, but Gillan has a huge chunk of the drama that she has to anchor, and she doesn’t bother to show up. The only person who seems to be enjoying himself is Matt Smith, and even he’s stuck doing things he’s done before. 

This also gets at the other big structural flaw of the story, which is that everything after Isaac’s death turns out to be setup for the exact situation that Isaac averted, only with the tiny difference that the Gunslinger gets off the hook. Isaac sacrifices himself to keep Kahler-Jex from committing suicide at more or less the halfway point of the episode. Twenty minutes later… Kahler-Jex resolves the situation by committing suicide. The heroic suicide is a lame enough trope, but to set it up and then prevent it just so your story has a second half, then end it with something so similar to what you rejected is careless. It makes the script feel like it’s as much on autopilot as the actors. 

And yet for all of this, it feels as though the biggest problem with A Town Called Mercy is simply that it’s in Season Seven. This would be acceptable, at least, in any other season. Indeed, pretty much every other season has at least one story that basically does what this story does, complete with an arc about the Doctor nearly succumbing to the desire to mete out divine justice and finally taking a higher route. In most cases, it works pretty well. Sometimes it’s a season highlight. Rarely is it a turkey. But it’s been done, and here it reaches a familiar point in Doctor Who - the moment where what had been working perfectly well suddenly and abruptly dries up and feels tedious and dull.

The problem, and here, as we’re going to be stuck doing throughout Season Seven, we have to reach past the end of TARDIS Eruditorum a bit, in this case the old approach has run out of road before a new approach has quite managed to establish itself. The experiments with narrative acceleration will yield some new techniques, but they don’t quite work on their own. And the pulling back on the Doctor’s familiarity is difficult in the third season of a given lead actor. So we fall into a bit of a gap here - one where the past is clearly ready to be buried, but the future hasn’t emerged yet. 

If anything, what’s surprising is that the past has stuck around for so long. This is, under the hood, basically a Russell T Davies story. The only other time an old approach has hung around quite this long after creative changes is the appearance of The Hand of Fear in Philip Hinchcliffe’s third and final season, and that’s very much a testament to the long arm of the Pertwee era. And fair enough - the reinvention of the show under Russell T Davies is the sort of thing you’d expect to have similar reach. But in this case, unlike the Hinchcliffe era, the new approach hasn’t actually come together yet. There hasn’t been a big, iconic “this is what we do now” story for the new approach. Arguably, there’s not going to be until 2014, although ultimately I’d disagree with that and pick out a couple of stories in 2013. And all of this is complicated by Steven Moffat himself making huge leaps in his storytelling that require going through a rough patch before suddenly emerging at the end of 2013/beginning of 2014 with the astonishing Time of the Doctor/His Last Vow

But none of that helps this story, which sits, stranded, as clear endpoint of a particular way of doing things. This is the last time the series will try to get away with a high-theme story about the boundless and infinite pain of being the last of the Time Lords. It’s the last time it’s going to dabble so obviously in “the hero and the villain are just mirrors of each other.” It’s the last time, to be somewhat sharper and more directly implicate Toby Whithouse, that it’s going to feel like a post-Alan Moore reboot of Doctor Who. (And here the Pop Between Realities on The Fades becomes apropos as well.) This is, in some ways, the longest aesthetic project of Doctor Who. It’s been trying to accomplish this sort of story since Remembrance of the Daleks. Here, it finally stops, realizing that it’s accomplished it in as many ways as it is possible to accomplish such a thing. Twenty-three years of one particular stylistic and aesthetic approach comes to an end here. Which is an astonishingly long run. Notably, it’s nearly as many years as it took to get to Remembrance of the Daleks in the first place. Given this, the fact that we can finally say we’re done seems almost… merciful.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Flatline Review

This review was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Please consider joining them. Also, if you're in the New York area, I'm doing a launch party for TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 5 (it's out, by the way). That'll be next Saturday, October 25th, at 3:30 PM at The Way Station, in Brooklyn. Copies of all five volumes of TARDIS Eruditorum will be for sale, and I will be signing stuff if you want to bring copies you already own. There's a Facebook event page here. 

Hello folks. Let's take the temperature of the world, shall we? Comments thus far are quite positive. GallifreyBase has an impressive 84.4% in the 8-10 range, with 9 being the most popular at 32.69%, which has this at slightly more popular than Mummy on the Orient Express. I'll be honest, that surprises me a bit, as I was, for the first time this season, a bit underwhelmed.

That said, this one is tricky, and in a way that feels as though there’s an unusually high chance of my revising my opinion on it upon seeing what it's actually building to. We're to the point in the season where the finale is tacitly hanging over things, and this one in particular seems to be making some points about Clara that could feel very different in a couple of weeks. But for me, right now, it feels messy and untidy. Like Mummy on the Orient Express, its emotional resolution is consciously ambiguous, in a way that makes it end off feeling slightly less developed than I think the story actually is. This is due in part to the sneaky power of endings to redefine and reimagine everything that has come before, but it’s also due to the ending actually just not quite fitting with what’s come before completely.

So much of what is going on here hinges on the question of what Clara being elevated to having to “be the Doctor” actually means. Which is indeed a complex question, given the way in which the season has largely treated the Doctor as an object of the sublime - at once wondrous and terrifying. And so for Clara to become the Doctor is not merely aspiration.

This is a marked change - typically the “companion steps up” story is about the companion striving to be better. With Clara, it’s not quite. Indeed, there’s a genuine sense that in becoming the Doctor she has become lessened. In a season in which we have repeatedly been asked to consider the idea of a dark Doctor, and have in many cases simply done so unbidden, without the text particularly pushing us to, just by the knowledge that Peter Capaldi is playing him. Instead, however, especially as her relationship with Danny continues to paint her into an increasingly unsympathetic corner, it feels as though it’s in fact a season about a dark Clara.

And the contours of this revelation have been slyly hidden in the way in which the Doctor’s part has never been written as a traditional lead. I suspect part of the reason why Mummy on the Orient Express went over slightly better than I’d have guessed was simply down to the fact that it was the first story to leave the focus on the Doctor being Doctorish for the episode’s entire run. He’s been left on the edge of the plot, and not given anything like an arc - instead, he remains a constant but slightly alien figure, while Clara gets pushed in increasingly varied directions, the variety of this serving as a gradually slipping mask hiding the problems with her actions.

Which is, of course, surely tied to the fact that Missy “chose” her for some purpose. But between this and the cryptic comment on the Doctor’s part about “goodness having nothing to do with it,” the end resolves this fantastic story about Clara being the Doctor with utter ambiguity. Which would be less of a problem if everything that came before weren’t in turn dominated by a very “let’s run around and fight monsters” approach that played up plot and played down theme.

Which is fine. A straightforward adventure where Clara gets to be the Doctor (and unlike most “the companion has to be the Doctor” stories, succeeds straightforwardly, on her own merits and competence, and without having to commit suicide or anything, which is absolutely brilliant - I love that she's absolutely capable of being the Doctor) is a fine thing to do. An unsettling examination of Clara as a character that really pushes the possibility that she’s lost or is losing her moral center is a fine thing to do. But this feels uncomfortably like one that just changes what it’s trying to do at the last second without quite knowing how to do it.

It’s not that the ending is unearned - Clara’s constant instinct towards simply taking the Doctor’s callousness at face value and, indeed, turning to it as a first and most obvious choice is a clear part of what’s going on here, and the Doctor is visibly disturbed by it. But the theme isn’t loud enough in the buildup for the ambiguity of the ending to quite work. In many ways the key dropped ball here is Danny, who needs so much more than a single phone call. Five episodes ago, he defined himself in part because he knew when people were lying. Four ago, he considered what lies people told him to be the most important thing about them. Now he hears his girlfriend smashing through a window, obviously knows something is wrong, and wanders off out of the plot anyway. This, like many things in the episode, is something that might be clarified in later weeks so that this improves on rewatching - some explanation of why Danny doesn't follow up on this, or, alternatively, seeing him call Clara out for it next week. But today, on October 18th, it’s a problem - he feels like he vanishes from the story, despite so much of the story hinging on Clara's treatment of him.

This is all not entirely helped by a story that is clearly reveling in the tone shifts that Doctor Who is capable of, enjoying the sort of absurd visuals that the show can deliver and its ability to be terrifying one minute and have the Doctor squeezing his hand out of the TARDIS and walking it off a train track the next. (Which may be the most bewilderingly wonderful action sequence ever, especially given that it gets the exact same slightly overblown action theme as everything else in the episode.) It’s a marvelous bit, and is much like the mixture of camp and scares in Mummy on the Orient Express, but in a story that’s destabilized by inconsistent tone elsewhere, it exacerbates the problems.

Which ultimately adds up to the first story in Season Eight that I just don’t feel like quite comes together. After a chain of episodes that made interesting changes to their fundamental premises at the halfway point, we have one that hits its basic note of “monsters on a council estate” and then stayed there, unblinking. Its spin on the companion-led episode structure in which the companion proves a perfectly competent Doctor is great. But on the whole, the episode feels a bit like the one that fell through the cracks, or, at least, like the one that's been the most willing to settle for merely being pretty good.

  • Love the two main supporting characters, though. They’re both absolutely delightful. Although I spent most of the episode thinking that the Daily Mail one was going to turn out to be a zombie sort of thing based on his facial appearance. 
  • The visuals are in several places wonderful - the anamorphic victim in the cold open and, especially, the slow circling around the possibly 2-D guy in the warehouse. And the flickering monsters themselves are great. If an episode is going to ride so heavily on its great monster concept, it’s nice to see one that’s actually good, which the Boneless absolutely are. This is (mostly) the most visually striking episode of the season, I think, although in typical Doctor Who fashion, shambling zombie bodies possessed by two-dimensional monsters prove terribly effective, but trains are oddly dodgy affairs.
  • I find Capaldi’s acting of his big scene bursting out of the TARDIS fascinating, as he goes from reluctance to overplaying things in a really quite sly way. He’s done things like this a couple times, and I’ve still not decided if I like them or not, but they’re such striking decisions that I can’t help but be intrigued. 
  • In the spirit of probably wrong predictions, I will guess that Missy is the Master, and that she will have a ludicrously elaborate long-game plan involving Clara and the Doctor, with the excessive complexity played in part for laughs in the finale, probably in the first episode.
  • Thinking about it slightly more, and adding this bullet point after the rest of the review, my problem here, I think, is that the ending seemed to be there to push me towards not quite trusting Clara, with the double whammy of "goodness had nothing to do with it" and Missy laying a measure of claim to Clara. And that's interesting, and I like it, but it really undermines, for me at least, an episode that focused so heavily on Clara. It left me with the sense that I'd just watched a bunch of setup for a big twist ending, but without the twist ending actually being in this episode. This one might well move a bit in my end-of-season rankings.
  • And finally, rankings.
  1. Kill the Moon
  2. Listen
  3. Deep Breath
  4. The Caretaker
  5. Mummy on the Orient Express
  6. Time Heist
  7. Into the Dalek
  8. Robot of Sherwood
  9. Flatline (Pending end of season re-evaluation)


Friday, October 17, 2014

The Darkness Finally Screamed (The Last War in Albion Part 66: Crisis on Infinite Earths, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow)

This is the sixteenth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the fourth volume. It's available in the US here and UK here. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionAlan Moore's Swamp Thing tied in with Marz Wolfman and George Pérez's epic Crisis on Infinite Earths.

"In the beginning there was only one. A single black infinitude, so cold and dark for so very long that even the burning light was imperceptible. But the light grew, and the infinitude shuddered, and the darkness finally screamed, as much in pain as in relief." -Marv Wolfman, Crisis on Infinite Earths

Figure 491: The cover of the debut issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
This story, published as a twelve-issue limited series, was a watershed moment in the history of comics. It came about due to the confluence of two seemingly unrelated things: the fact that DC Comics took place in a multiverse consisting of infinitely many parallel universes, and the fact that over the course of the 1970s and 80s American comic book retailing had steadily transitioned from being dominated by newsstands and other magazine vendors to being dominated by shops focusing exclusively on comic books. 

This tendency began in 1972 when a bookshop owner and comics convention organizer named Phil Seuling created East Coast Seagate Distribution after negotiating deals with most of the major comics publishers to allow him to buy comics at a deep discount in exchange for the comics purchased being nonreturnable. Because this dramatically decreased the risk for publishers (who were, as ever, facing declining sales), this proved acceptable to the companies. Seagate then arranged to ship those comics to specialty shops. Over the course of the ensuing decade, this eclipsed newsstands as the primary means of distributing comics, in no small part because Seagate could routinely get comics to shops a week faster than the newsstands got them, a fact that comics fans quickly picked up on, bringing more traffic towards the specialty shops and away from newsstands. In 1973, the direct market consisted of approximately 25% of comics sales. A decade later, it was newsstands that made up only 25% of the market, and the industry was awash in regional distributors all in competition with one another. 

One consequence of this was a fundamental shift in the nature of comics readers. Whereas in their early days American comic books were read by a wide and general audience, the direct market sold entirely to people who were dedicated enough comics fans to go to a shop stocking specifically comics, as opposed to people who happened to pick them up from a magazine rack at the supermarket. This accelerated a general trend that existed since the rise of semi-organized fandom in the late 60s, creating a smaller but more highly engaged readership. Comics companies quickly capitalized on this, creating titles designed for dedicated fans, among them Crisis on Infinite Earths

Figure 492: Top - Jay Garrick collapses from the chemical vapors
in his lab. (Written by Gardner Fox, art by Harry Lampert, in Flash
Comics
 #1, 1939) Bottom - Barry Allen is bathed in chemicals and
lightning in his lab. (Written by Robert Kanigher, art by Carmine
Infantino and Joe Kubert, from Showcase #4, 1956)
A basic truism of comics fans, however, is that they are prone to a certain measure of obsessiveness, particularly on the matter of maintaining consistency across multiple comics. This was always one of the great strengths of Stan Lee’s approach to comics, which was always careful to show that all of the Marvel books took place in a shared universe and to make sure events in one book were, if appropriate, reflected in others. But DC, owing to its decades longer history, had a much more ad hoc approach. Although some of its superhero titles, most notably Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman had been published continually since World War II, most had been retired in the aftermath of the war when superheroes declined in popularity, and were not revived until after the formation of the Comics Code, when superhero comics were seen as a suitable genre to continue telling the sorts of adventure stories that had previously appeared in the now-banned crime comics. DC, in reviving its superheroes under the editorial eye of Julius Schwartz, used many of its old World War II-era character names, but gave them all revised origins and concepts. So, for instance, where the World War II-era character the Flash was a college student named Jay Garrick who fell asleep in his laboratory and inhaled chemical vapors that gave him superhuman speed, the 1950s iteration of the character was a police scientist named Barry Allen who, working late one night, had a case full of chemicals explode all over him in a lightning strike. 

Figure 493: The two flashes meet. (Written by
Gardner Fox, art by Carmine Infantino and Joe
Giella, from Flash #123, 1961)
In 1961 DC published The Flash #123, featuring a story entitled “Flash of Two Worlds!” In this story, Barry Allen accidentally travels between universes, appearing in a parallel Earth in which Jay Garrick, the comic book character that inspired his costume and name, is actually a real person, with whom he teams up to stop several World War II-era Flash villains. This comic introduced the idea of the DC Multiverse, which was eventually formalized to place the World War II-era superheroes on a world designated Earth-2, while the contemporary ones existed on Earth-1. This quickly led to the proliferation of many more universes, until, as Marv Wolfman put it in an essay at the start of the first issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, “DC Mythology, which had grown helter-skelter over the past 50 years, had become rather convoluted.” These problems compounded themselves, as the default solution to any continuity problem was to declare that whatever story didn’t fit took place on yet another alternate earth, compounding the problem and, worse, becoming increasingly impenetrable to new readers.

Figure 494: Swamp Thing's
most substantive appearance
in Crisis on Infinite Earths.
(Written by Marv Wolfman,
art  by George Pérez and Jerry
Ordway,  from Crisis on Infinite
Earths
 #5, 1985)
Crisis on Infinite Earths was designed to clean up the morass of DC history and allow the line to move forward with a single, unified world that would incorporate all of the various parts of the multiverse into a coherent whole. The product of four years of research on Marv Wolfman’s part and the willingness of George Pérez to draw frighteningly detailed panels with dozens of minor characters in them such that Wolfman could incorporate practically every character in the history of DC into his story. (Swamp Thing, for his part, appears in the last panel of page ten of issue #5, alongside Sergeant Rock and two of the Easy Company, delivering his only line, “Yes… the Earth… has changed… become dark… corrupt.”) 

Figure 495: The Monitor observes Swamp
Thing's battle with Anton Arcane. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Rick Veitch and John
Totleben, from Saga of the Swamp Thing #31, 1984)
It is ironic, then, that the plot of Crisis on Infinite Earths is one of the most ludicrously impenetrable and convoluted things ever put to page. It concerns the conflict between two godlike beings, the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor. The former of these had been appearing in cameo roles throughout DC’s line in the years leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, including a brief appearance in Swamp Thing #31, the final part of Moore’s Arcane story, while the latter was a new villain introduced for Crisis itself. Both had their origins in the creation of the Multiverse, with the Anti-Monitor existing on a planet called Qward within an antimatter universe originating in some 1960s Green Lantern comics, and wanting to destroy the entire Multiverse. The Monitor recruits a bunch of heroes to defend the Multiverse by merging all of the universes into one, but his plans are derailed when his assistant, Harbinger, is possessed by one of the Anti-Monitor’s shadow creatures and kills him. It turns out, however, that the Monitor had planned for this eventuality and projects the last five Earths of the Multiverse into a Limbo universe. With the assistance of Alexander Luthor from Earth-3 (where heroes are villains, such that the Justice League of America is replaced by the Crime Syndicate of America, but where, correspondingly, villains are heroes, resulting in Lex Luthor sending his infant son to Earth-1 as the universe ends at the start of Crisis, in a sly parallel of Superman’s origin story) the now-recovered Harbinger leads an attack on the Anti-Montior that delays his plans, at the cost of Supergirl’s life. Meanwhile, the Flash dies stopping another scheme of the Anti-Monitor’s finding himself flung across time where, as his body disintegrates, he tries to offer warnings to heroes, explaining a series of mysterious appearances he’d been making prior to his death. Undaunted, the Anti-Monitor travels to the dawn of time as a massive alliance of supervillains tries to conquer the Multiverse. This latest scheme is deflected by the Spectre, who battles with the Anti-Monitor using the combined powers of all of DC’s magical characters to fight against the Anti-Monitor, who drains the power of all of the superheroes. The result is the creation of a singular universe in which elements of the remaining five worlds are juxtaposed, including having both the Earth-1 and Earth-2 versions of Superman. At this point the Anti-Monitor attacks yet again, dragging the singular Earth into the antimatter universe and proclaiming, memorably, “you whimpering fool, it already is too late! From the moment you set foot on Qward - you sealed your own fates! This is the day the Universe dies!” He’s finally defeated for once and for all (until his next appearance in 1999) by Alexander Luthor, the Earth-2 Superman, and the Earth-Prime version of Superman (Earth Prime originally being intended as the real world of the DC Comics readership, introduced in The Flash #179 in 1968, but eventually given a Superboy in DC Comics Presents #87 in 1985), who, along with the Earth-2 version of Lois Lane, secretly saved by Alexander Luthor when the various Earths merge, retreat into a paradise dimension outside of the universe, allowing the newly formed singular Earth to continue on with no memory that there had ever been a multiverse save on the part of the Psycho-Pirate, a 1960s enemy of Doctor Fate and Hourman who was a Silver Age remake of a Justice Society of America villain from 1944 who controlled emotions through the magical Medusa Masks, and who had been an ally of the Anti-Monitor throughout Crisis on Infinite Earths

Figure 496: Colleen Doran did Orbiter with
Warren Ellis in 2004.
In the years following the comic’s publication, the various comics DC published rebooted to reflect this new continuity. These reboots led to one of Moore’s two engagements with Crisis on Infinite Earths, a two-part Superman story entitled “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” that served as the final Superman story before the post-Crisis reboot. The origins of this story lie in Moore’s second trip to the United States in 1985, where he was a guest at San Diego Comicon. There he heard from Julius Schwartz that he intended to transition to the reboot of Superman by doing an issue of each of Superman’s two titles at the time, Action Comics and Superman, that would pretend to be the final issue of the comic. As Schwartz tells it, upon hearing this Moore “literally rose out of his chair, put his hands around my neck, and said, ‘if you let anybody but me write that story, I’ll kill you.’” Moore, for his part, wrote in 2004 upon the occasion of Schwartz’s passing, “how, now, am I supposed to contradict a classic Julius Schwartz yarn? So, all right: it’s true. I picked him up and shook him like a British nanny, and I hope wherever he is now, he’s satisfied by this shame-faced confession.” (Other classic Julius Schwartz yarns include his sexually assaulting Colleen Doran.) 

Figure 497: Superman was equally unsympathetic
to Lois Lane.
On art duties for “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” was, by Moore’s request, Curt Swan, whose immaculately clean lines defined Superman’s square-jawed and uncomplicated heroism had defined Superman over the preceding three decades. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” would end up being Swan’s last piece of regular work for the company, however, as Crisis and the subsequent reboot of the Superman franchise was used as an excuse to push Swan out in favor of a thirty years younger and then-trendier artist, in this case John Byrne, who would himself be steadily ushered to the junk heap of once-hot artists several decades later. Moore also opted to frame the story using a gimmick dating back to the 1950s under the editorial tenure of Mort Weisinger (one of the least pleasant to work with editors in comics history, famously described by Roy Thomas as “a malevolent toad”), and owe their existence to the trend of advertising elaborate and ridiculous premises for comics on the covers, often coming up with them prior to actually writing the story inside, leaving writers to subsequently come up with stories that explained why, for example, Superman is setting fire to the dressing gown Jimmy Olsen has gotten him for father’s day while saying that he’s “sorry I ever adopted you as my son.” Eventually this got difficult enough that Weisinger concocted the idea of declaring stories to be “imaginary stories” that existed outside of continuity, and thus could be used to do things like tell the story of Superman’s death, which of course could never happen inside the comics themselves. 

Figure 498: The opening to "Whatever Happened to
the Man of Tomorrow," proclaiming it (and all other
Superman stories) to be imaginary. (From Superman
#423, 1986)
And so “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” opens with one of the more famous passages ever written by Moore, which proclaims, in an ornate and old-fashioned script selected by letterer Todd Klein, that “this is an IMAGINARY STORY (Which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed,” it explains, and proceeds to tease much of the plot of the subsequent two issues, before concluding that the story “begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a bird, only a plane. Superman died ten years ago. This is an IMAGINARY Story… Aren’t they all?” 

It is worth highlighting the degree to which this is, within the context of 1986 DC Comics, actually controversial. Certainly John Byrne, who was inheriting the Superman books after this, did not like it, complaining years later about how he cannot hear the phrase “imaginary story” “without a snide and ennui soaked voice whispering in my ear ‘but aren’t they all?’” Indeed, he suggests that Moore’s preface to the story “goes most deeply to the root” of “the many things that can be seen to have gone wrong with American superhero comics.” [continued]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Good Grief, It's a Stegosaurus! (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship)

Title accomplished. 
It's September 8th, 2012. Little Mix is at number one with "Wings," with Florence and the Machine, Sam and the Womp, and Taylor and the Swift also charting, the latter with "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," which is the second best title we're going to discuss in this post. In news, since it's been a while since we've checked in, there's been most of the US Presidential campaign, and at this point it's settled to a nice, drab Mitt Romney vs Barack Obama contest. 620 million people lost power in India. The Mars Rover Curiosity landed. Oh, and there was Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, which was celebrated by forcing unpaid workers to sleep under a bridge.

While on television, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which is about what you'd expect. It’s not entirely unfair to accuse this story of aiming for mediocrity and hitting it squarely. Its title announces a somewhat spectacular lack of ambition - a Snakes on a Plane riff. That said, Doctor Who can fairly be expected to occasionally do frothy adventure stories, or, as we call them in fandom, romps. This one may come off as being particularly unambitious, but equally, there’s a brazen cheek to it that appeals.

Still, let’s look at what’s in this simple little romp. First, of course, is the premise - a Silurian ark that got hijacked by a man who can discern the value of anything in space and time, but who can’t actually fly it. The ship is given enough little details to be memorable - the tidal power is a clever image, although the physics of it seem strained at best. The "two people of the same genetic line" piloting is a contrivance, but again, at least a memorable one. We're back in the territory of Doctor Who being about unraveling the nature of a world, which is always a nice sort of return.

There's also the villain, Solomon, who's one of the nastiest pieces of work the show has had in a while. David Bradley is one of several bits of top notch casting in this story, but in many ways what really jumps out is the fact that Solomon is so different from Bradley's other recent famous nasty piece of work in a sci-fi/fantasy show. There's a casual sadism to Solomon that crackles, especially in the blasé way that he describes killing off the Silurians. He's sufficiently nasty that what would normally be the slightly shocking resolution of the Doctor actively killing him (which we all know he's not supposed to do unless the villain isn't human) seems oddly satisfying.

Also significant in terms of the premise is the Indian Space Agency, which is notable as the closest thing Doctor Who has ever done to actually setting a story in India or in any substantive way engaging with Indian culture. It's a small touch, but one that carries real weight, even if the ISA ultimately just does the same stuff that every earth-based governmental organization always does when aliens are involved in Doctor Who, namely delay a bit and then try to blow them up to provide a climax to the story. 

And there's the comedy robots voiced by Mitchell and Webb, another triumph in the new series' grand tradition of punching above its weight in terms of the actors it gets through the simple trick of not actually requiring more than a couple of hours' work. As one would expect, they are suitably funny, providing yet another way to keep things moving, and the contrast between their comedy and, for instance, the pathos generated by casually killing a triceratops is tremendously clever.

On top of the multi-faceted premise is the guest cast. Rupert Graves makes his inevitable jump from Sherlock to be a big Edwardian hunter. This is a solid combination - Riddell is written as an over the top Robert Holmes character, but Graves is adept at a wry understatement that elevates the role, making an impact pleasantly out of proportion to his screen time.

Nefertiti is not quite as well acted, but is such a delightfully bonkers character to put in a story called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship that she works as well, especially given the savvy decision to put her in the same plot as Amy for the first chunk of the story, and then to give her two major and decisive moments of glory in the climax, first in turning herself over to Solomon, and then in upending him during the Doctor's rescue.

And then, of course, there's Brian, who is basically the best thing ever. Slyly extrapolated from Rory's own ambivalence about traveling on the TARDIS, he is, like Nefertiti, a character who is spectacularly ill-suited to the story he's in, which in turn allows him to be clever in a number of ways. Almost all of the story's best bits revolve around Brian, and,  fittingly, they're mostly small ones: his casual production of a trowel, for instance, but also the sense of horror and wrongness when Solomon orders him tortured to force the Doctor to comply. He's sufficiently brilliant that it's in some ways actively painful that he wasn't introduced more than four episodes prior to Amy and Rory's departure, but at least he's here now.

But wait a moment. In the course of this supposedly simple story, we've now done seven straight paragraphs on major aspects of it. This story may not be aiming for much, but it's as jam packed as Asylum of the Daleks was. There, I made something of a joke in suggesting that it was a return to the days of Bob Baker and David Martin, but to be honest, they seem like explicit models for this story, which never explores a concept it's already introduced when it can introduce a new one instead. 

As an approach, it makes sense, especially when one recalls that this was filmed first in Season Seven. Season Seven is repeatedly interested in the question of "just how fast can we move the plot," at times to its detriment. But in terms of executing these experiments, starting with an "everything and the kitchen sink" approach on a straightforward romp is a sensible way to proceed. And in many ways, it works. Like Baker and Martin, Chibnall has a solid sense of when it's time to dramatically alter the status quo of an episode. He keeps things moving at a nice pace. 

This excess of concepts also serves a practical function. Doctor Who can finally deliver the giant lizards that Malcolm Hulke always dreamt of, but what it can't do is deliver them for a sustained forty-five minutes. You can have dinosaurs on a spaceship, and you can even have impressive dinosaurs on a spaceship in several clever set-pieces, but you can't actually fill an episode with dinosaurs. Given the need to keep the effects shots down, there has to be more to the concept. So this proves a solid and sensible place to start playing with the question of how much you can pack into the script. 

The problem is that it's a Chris Chibnall script, and is perhaps too faithful to the Baker and Martin inspiration. Ideas are piled on with little regard for how they're going to fit together. This may be a story about understanding the rules of the spaceship, but those rules really just amount to Chibnall introducing a new concept whenever he needs one. Nothing in the spaceship fits together in a particularly coherent way - it's just a series of narrative patches.

Similarly, the secondary characters, apart from Brian, are thin despite how interesting they are. Plenty of people have pointed out that possibly choosing a Hebrew name for the insatiably greedy character was not the greatest decision ever, and they are very much correct. The love affair between Riddell and Nefertiti is a late contender for Tat Wood's About Time list of the oddest romances in Doctor Who. (I'd personally put it right between Stevens/BOSS and Brigadier/Doris) Though that's being charitable, as another perfectly fair assessment is that Chibnall writes the love story that everyone wrongly accuses Moffat of writing, in which the misogynistic jerk charms the independent woman out of her independence. And while the Doctor killing Solomon is perfectly in keeping with his character, and a nice relief from the slight xenophobia implicit in Doctor Who's usual ethics about who can and can't be casually murdered (See also the Androgums), there's a lingering sense that someone should probably have reacted to it or commented on it, not least because the next story makes so much out of a not entirely dissimilar plot point.

And yet at the end of the day the title largely saves this story from its own worst instincts. It's perhaps cynical to decide to demand less of a story just because it's called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but what else can you do? The story is openly inviting us to revel in superficial fun, and it gives us lots of it. Among a TARDIS crew who can do this in their sleep (and, one occasionally suspects, might actually be), Rupert Graves, David Bradley, and Mark Williams, there's a cast that can make a bit of madcap silliness work. One might fairly wish they'd been used on more substantial stuff, but in many ways it's with the sillier episodes that having a rock solid cast in place matters. And it's the debut of Saul Metzstein, who ends up being the defining director of Season Seven, helming a slightly absurd five episodes. He's far from the most accomplished of visual stylists, but he's solid and capable and gets the job done. 

In the end, the worst you can say about this episode is that it's called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and that this is a pretty solid and reasonable title for what the story is. This is also the best you can say about it. Actually, it might just be all there is to say about it. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Good Dalek (Asylum of the Daleks)

In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as Oswin Oswald.
If you missed it, the latest volume of TARDIS Eruditorum is out. Print availability glitched yesterday, but it's now fixed and available for ordering. My apologies for the screwup.

It’s October 14th, 2014, and this goes up in eleven hours. It’s a bit of a late start. My fault. People were wrong on the Internet.

If you’re reading this in the blog version, this is the first regular-season Moffat story to be placed in the proper order since The Beast Below, a tactic that has had the effect of jumbling the narrative of his stewardship of the program, slightly obscuring the business of actually making history out of it. If you’re reading this in the book version, this sentence will have a better ending reflecting whatever my final decision is on how to do the River entries there. (I’m kind of unhappy with the idea of the Tennant book not having Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and with the Smith book lacking Name of the Doctor. And if the conceit of the entries works out, ultimately reading the River Song entries in their correct places ought to work just as well as scrambling them.) 

It’s not the best time to be writing this, honestly - a statement with sly double meaning given that the real deadline is three hours, as that’s when Jill comes home from work and we need to head to bed, because it’s another 5am wakeup tomorrow. God help me, I’m on days. But what I mean is on October 14th, 2014, with what are probably just four more episodes of Clara’s story to air. Here I have to tackle the first part, and there’s an impossibly large amount of potential foreshadowing that might be worth highlighting. To pick just one possible example - something that could turn out to be a meaningless blip, or could turn out to be a major thematic point: Clara quite literally makes a good Dalek. Who knows what else there is. 

This is a characteristic of Moffat’s plotting, and is worth unpacking. There’s a popular theory within media criticism that says that, when plotting an extended storyline in a serialized medium, you should know where you’re going when you start. This, after all, helps with that whole Aristotelean unity thing. If you know the ending, you can set it up at the beginning. Many people - Alan Moore still visibly holds a grudge over this - say that’s what was wrong with Lost all along: that they were making it up as they go along. And yet there’s clearly an extent to which this is not true. I’ve been leafing through The From Hell Companion lately, and it’s full of amusing anecdotes highlighting the ways in which From Hell did and didn’t unfold according to a set design, and how Moore’s conception of it changed based on what Campbell did with the art. Yes, there are many ways in which the broad strokes were in place from the start, and even many specific details, but there was also lots that changed along the way. The same can be said of Babylon 5, the original and fetishized object of complex multi-season plotting. 

The invocation of Babylon 5 is a particularly important one, in that it reminds us that we are talking specifically about objects that attract a specific sort of vocal fan, with a specific set of attendant problems. Fans are a particularly pathological sort of reader. Not a bad sort, but a pathological sort, with an odd degree of textual attentiveness. This creates an implicit demand that this sort of attentiveness be rewarded somehow. We - let’s not pretend otherwise - enjoy being flattered with in-jokes. We get off on hearing Androzani mentioned. We like it when things are introduced and then paid off years later. We’re identical to soap fans, basically - a point we’ve talked about before. Notably, however, Doctor Who has to work for non-fans. Anything smaller than one of the fundamental aspects of the show (like, for instance, that the nice silly bow-tie man is being replaced by that cross Scottish guy from The Thick of It) needs to at least be partially reintroduced to be used. 

So we have a strange thing - stories that have to work in an Aristotelean way, but must nevertheless adapt both to the realities of collaborative creative work, which is that no plan survives contact with your collaborator, and to the need to make it so that you can bring in new viewers effectively, especially for a generational show like Doctor Who that has to continually manage that.

Moffat’s solution to this problem has always been to leave hooks that clearly beg to be picked up on, figuring that he’ll come up with something for them later. He may well have some idea what that will be, but the details will come when he gets there. (It’s a strange fact of Moffat’s writing that he approaches all scripts strictly linearly - he never jumps ahead and writes a later bit. He knows where he means to go, but he approaches it as linearly as the audience, experiencing them in scene-by-scene order.) Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, things don’t get picked up. In the Doctor Who Confidential on Victory of the Daleks, there’s a story about him telling Gatiss to call the yellow Dalek “Dalek Eternal,” and Gatiss asking what that meant. Moffat’s answer was something to the effect of “I have no idea, but it’ll be brilliant when I come up with it.” And of course, he probably never will, given that the New Paradigm Daleks have been quietly retired as the aesthetic disasters they were. 

In other words, Moffat writes in such a way as to make Aristotelean unities easy to generate, and then fills them in at the correct dramatic points of the story.  And over the course of the last few years of his writing, he’s clearly come to a controversial aesthetic conclusion: given that Aristotelean unities are not fixed parts of the story but magic tricks that you can generate out of some pacing and camera work, they don’t actually need to be all that unified in the first place. This reaches its zenith to date with The Reichenbach Fall, which openly declares its central mystery to be a magic trick, and then, in its 2014 resolution, ultimately concludes that there were so many ways to pull it off that which one they picked was irrelevant. And fair play, he’s proven his point. He’s consistently popular. He wins major awards. His critics can (and do) complain that he breaks their stated rules for how writing has to work, but eppur si muove

And yet…

I mean, obviously I’m a fan, in every sense. For my money, Moffat at his best is untouchable. He’s one of the all-time greats, like Whedon or Sorkin or Holmes. Especially when you consider the length of his career. He may be at his popular peak right now, but he’s been making brilliant television since 1989. Press Gang was brilliant at least once a season. So was Coupling. Joking Apart’s first episode is unparalleled. Chalk is… not actually that bad, from the episodes I’ve seen. And then you get the run of sheer, gobsmacking brilliance that starts with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and continues through Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, The Eleventh Hour, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, A Study in Pink, Scandal in Belgravia, Day of the Doctor, His Last Vow, and Listen. And of the stories that I didn’t list… look, I’d rather watch the worst post-2005 Moffat Doctor Who script than a fair number of writers’ best, and I doubt I’m alone in that.

But there’s really no way around it. Asylum of the Daleks shows his approach stretched to its breaking point, or at least, to a breaking point. It’s an astonishingly messy, overstuffed story, where none of the elements have any room to breathe. For every standard line of criticism about Steven Moffat, Asylum of the Daleks is a story that provides you with ammunition. Large parts of its plot setup are offloaded - the nature of the Doctor’s summons to the official prequel, the nature of Amy and Rory’s impending divorce to Pond Life where, inexplicably, it’s forced entirely into the fifth part of that, although to be fair, it’s hard to complain about the loss of vital character moments when they’re replaced with a the punchline “Ood on the loo.” 

The result is a plot point that feels unbearably rushed, as Amy tearfully declares that she threw Rory out so he could have children because she knew she couldn’t after Demon’s Run, which on the one hand seems like an attempt to deflect the criticism that the consequences of Amy’s ordeal weren’t sufficiently explored, but which on the other is so perfunctory and lacking in any setup that it ends up creating more problems than it solves, not least because it’s not entirely clear there were problems in the first place. Plenty of defenses of the discretion with which the series treated Amy’s trauma existed at this point. Few can be mustered for treating such a massive trauma like this, with the plot point of Amy’s anguish being neither set up nor paid off, but nevertheless given substantial space in the episode, forcing us to confront her anguish without any sort of context with which to serve it narratively, so that it becomes a crass and exploitative thing. 

A similar sort of cynicism pervades the Daleks, who are oddly pushed to the sides of this story. It’s most potentially interesting thematic resonance - the entire Parliament of Daleks angrily chanting the oldest question in the universe - ends up being a complete non-point. The much hyped “every Dalek ever” is just obscure window-dressing for people with a HD copy and a pause button. The Dalek Asylum is just some grotty corridors, which is inevitable in one sense, but the lack of any real weight behind it feels like a wasted opportunity. Moffat has always tended towards the narrative substitution, and this time the abandoned story is that this was ever a Dalek story in the first place.

And yet for all of that, there’s an almost Bob Baker and David Martin-level of obsession with constantly throwing out new ideas. Dalek possessions, the Parliament of the Daleks, the Asylum, the nanocloud, and Amy and Rory’s impending divorce all come in rapid succession, but none of them really go anywhere. They’re employed for their set pieces and then we move on. It feels like this could stretch to a two-parter effortlessly, or at least to a seventy-five minute “feature length” episode, and yet it’s only four minutes extended. 

And yet… it still just about works. It’s far from the highlight of Moffat’s tenure, and it does kick off his annus miserabilis, but if you’re going to screw up, screwing up in a way such that the audience wants more is a pretty good way to do it. The sense of trying to do too many things is just as easily read as Moffat pushing against the limits of the format, actively testing how much he can get away with. If Asylum of the Daleks is a failure, it’s at least an ambitious one. Moffat puts an extraordinary amount of trust in Nick Hurran’s ability to use the visuals to do work that would normally go to exposition, and while this is the weakest of Hurran’s five episodes, it’s unimaginable with any other director. Pushing the idea of “Doctor Who is a fast-paced show” to see just how far you can go in 2012 is a worthwhile endeavor. And the knowledge that the show eventually stepped back from that extremism and took the lessons learned under advisement while it went on to do other things helps make these episodes go down a little smoother. Moffat is exploring contemporary television and narrative conventions as technology, doing for his own narrative magic tricks the same thing that Terror of the Autons did for CSO, Kinda did for video effects, and The End of the World did for the sense of scale that BBC Wales was offering, which is to say, exploring the consequences of them. 

And ironically, if Asylum of the Daleks can be said to work, it works because of the decision to push this already massive pile of ideas one step further and to preview Clara. This was a complex decision that’s not easy to read. If you were the sort of person who followed Doctor Who news enough to recognize Jenna Coleman when she appeared, her appearance overshadowed the entire story and became the focus of it. If you were not, she was a reasonably effective guest character, and the focus of the episode was presumably elsewhere, although I honestly can’t guess where. Probably Amy and Rory, which must have been a bit unsatisfying. Or, perhaps, just on big Dalek explosions and spectacle. Not since, well, Dalek has there been a story that’s clearly working for two audiences here, but where Dalek was an immaculately lean, focused thing, Asylum of the Daleks is unabashedly serving two masters in the sloppiest way imaginable. 

But this has never been a project entirely concerned with speculating as to the reactions of inattentive viewers. So let’s instead focus on what this episode does in terms of Clara, not that we knew who Clara was yet. First of all, we should note that this was a late decision. The original plan was to introduce Clara in The Snowmen, and she was added to Asylum of the Daleks late in the game. This is slightly flabbergasting - it’s impossible to imagine the story without her. To remove her character and put some random supporting character would render that plot as undeveloped as all the others. The decision to tease Clara a few months early is so self-evidently correct that it’s almost impossible to imagine doing it any other way. And yet we know that they did. 

Some of this seems to be a reaction to realizing what they had with Jenna Coleman. Watching her in this, after seeing twenty more episodes with her, it’s surprising how much of her performance as Oswin is subtly different. There’s always been a touch of the manic pixie dream girl trope to Clara - a concept we’ll have to unpack at some point, but let’s save it for the moment. Here that’s pushed higher into the mix. Oswin is impossibly competent, written to the point where if she ever actually came into contact with the Doctor the accusation of being a Mary Sue - in the classic “A Trekkie’s Tale” sense - would actually ring true. Coleman is launching a fantastic charm offensive, and she’s incredibly charming, but what’s surprising in hindsight is how little else she opts to bring to this particular performance. It’s deceptive in its simplicity. Because so much of the mystery over Clara was who she was, it’s not until she’s completed her time playing multiple characters on the show that the audience knows to go looking for the nuances of her performances. Here we get a very surface-level iteration Clara, all banter and cleverness. And by making that choice, Coleman does a sleight of hand that cleverly obscures the range with which she can actually imbue the part, and eventually will.

Well. Sort of. There’s one exception, but let’s look at a consequence of this first. A key aspect of Clara’s initial arc is the misdirection. We know in hindsight that this will eventually resolve with the revelation that she was an eminently possible girl all along, and that she simply did an extraordinary thing one day because there was nobody else to do it. The entire “Impossible Girl” arc is a narrative substitution in which the audience is fooled into treating Clara as a mystery, much as the Doctor does, so that both can be scolded for erasing her as a person. By introducing the character in such a flat and straightforward way, Coleman gives the impression that she’s simply Generic Companion, which allows much of her later subtlety to go unnoticed until the story is ready to pay it off, resulting in the soft reboot of the character that eventually comes when Peter Capaldi shows up - a reboot that amounts to the narrative actually telling us to pay attention to Coleman’s range instead of actively trying to distract us from it. But this misdirection is only heightened by the lack of context for her first appearance. What’s key is not merely that the next companion shows up early, it’s that she turns out to be a Dalek and then dies.

Which brings us to the one piece of real range here, which is everything after the reveal that Oswin is a Dalek. The flashback to her conversion, especially with the hindsight provided by seeing further episodes, is one of the most staggeringly upsetting things ever seen in Doctor Who. It may not be a “real” companion death, but it’s visceral and cruel in a way that not even the capricious murder of Katarina (subbing in for Vicki) really reaches. Certainly Earthshock has nothing on this in terms of shock. Hurran hits this out of the park, letting the lighting in Oswin’s cabin turn dark and ominous, and really selling the awful realization striking Oswin and the Doctor. 

But… it’s just a fridging. It’s exactly the thing Moffat so impressively avoids most of the time - the thing he subverts with Lorna’s death in A Good Man Goes to War. All Oswin is there to do is be revealed as this horrible violation of the companion. The skill with which its displayed only makes it more sickening. It salvages the episode from the mess that Moffat’s ambition paints it into, but at the cost of making this an incredibly ugly, cynical piece of work. It has all the cleverness of Moffat’s best scripts, but absolutely none of the moral integrity that crackles out of The Beast Below, A Good Man Goes to War, or His Last Vow. Inasmuch as Moffat is the spiritual successor to Robert Holmes, this is the story where he comes to embody Holmes’s worst tendencies of not thinking enough about the moral dimension of his stories or about how his innate cynicism can be usefully directed, and of ending up turning it inwards to score an own goal. This is a story in which all of the female characters are tortured and violated, all for no reason other than generating tension. It's an ugly, ugly thing.

Moffat is capable of better. There is much to admire here, but very little to like. Many of the reasons he is so good are also reasons why this story exists. And the basic creative bravery and integrity involved in pushing aspects of your approach further than they’d ever been pushed before just as you’re reaching a popular peak is difficult to praise enough. It would have been very easy for Moffat to play it safe at this point and simply continue giving people what had worked before. Instead he tried to move forward. And so while this is in most regards the sort of episode I’m prone to selling down the river in order to justify an argument about the necessity of change, it doesn’t even feel like a criticism to say that it demonstrates this. This is an episode that’s desperate to find ways to change and grow. And Moffat is already responding to his own calls for creative evolution. 


But that doesn’t change the fact that this is an episode in which his worst instincts overwhelm his best ones, and one that provides far more ammunition for his detractors than his defenders.